Early Training for Life
Parents, grandparents, and primary caregivers teach children so many things that it’s hard to know where to start naming them. They teach kids to walk, talk, eat, tie their shoes, brush their teeth, and dress themselves. They teach them how to treat others, how to say please and thank you, how to be patient, and how to share and how to express their feelings in productive ways. Most people agree kids learn almost all of their first life lessons at home. And most people agree with the idea that life at home models the world itself. They consider it a safe place to engage in trial and error: like a laboratory for life.
Older generations used to call all the lessons learned from parents, grandparents and primary caregivers Home Training. This phrase, however, comes with a bit of negative baggage because in the past, it was commonly used to criticize the child rearing practices of some families over others. Today, it’s helpful to think about all those fundamental lessons in a new way and give the process by which they’re learned a new name: Life Training.
Tools for Success: Responsibility
After respect and kindness, the most important lesson children need to learn before they leave home is responsibility. An individual with a highly developed sense of personal responsibility is more likely to succeed in school, in the workplace, and in society at large. Having a sense of responsibility is a quality which shows up in every area of life. People who are responsible do what they say they’re going to do. They’re the kind of people you can count on to come through for you. You can trust them. Anyone would want them as friends, coworkers, or bosses. And of course, they’re the kind of people all parents, grandparents, and primary caregivers want to raise.
The question is, though, how do you instill a sense of responsibility in children? The experts agree that the answer is straightforward: the best place to start is at home with simple chores and household tasks, and the best time to start is early – even as early as age three.
Tasks for Children by Age
At home, kids want to feel important. They want to feel connected to what’s going on around them. They want to do things that earn praise from their parents. Younger children especially love to be involved in the day-to-day work of the home. They want to do what adults do. Taking advantage of these impulses is a great way for parents to teach responsibility. Since pleasing parents motivates kids, giving them chores is a wonderful way for them to get the praise they seek and do something helpful around the house. Age appropriate jobs for kids include:
- Preschoolers: Kids age 3-5 can begin to learn responsibility by putting away their toys after they use them, putting their dirty clothes in the right place, and helping pour pet food/water in the pet bowl. Kids at this age also love to dust, even though it rarely does anything.
- Kindergarteners: Kids age 5-6 can help with cooking, setting and clearing the table, pulling weeds in the garden, watering flowers, and loading/unloading the dishwasher.
- Elementary School Age: Kids age 6-11 can do everything preschoolers can do, but with little or no supervision. In addition, they can take out the garbage and take greater responsibility in the kitchen. Elementary school kids are definitely ready to keep their rooms clean and, even if parents still feel it’s their job to do so, kids this age are ready to learn how to wash, dry, and fold their own laundry.
- Middle and High School Age: From middle school and beyond, kids are ready to do most things adults do. With the proper instruction, they’re ready for housework like cooking, laundry, vacuuming and dishes, and yard work like cutting the grass, raking leaves, and taking care of the garden.
Helping as a Habit: Life Training Starts at Home
What’s he secret to instilling a sense of responsibility in children?
That way, by the time they hit the tricky years of pre-adolescence and adolescence, responsibility is a habit, not something that’s taught at the last minute. A true sense of responsibility develops gradually over time. Between pre-school and high school, parents, grandparents, and primary caregivers can guide children through the process of becoming responsible with a firm, loving, and steady hand.
The expectations placed upon the children – i.e. the chores and responsibilities mentioned above – are most likely to be fulfilled when praise for a job well done is given freely and often. When adults give reminders with respect and care, kids respond well. When consequences for forgotten or ignored tasks are consistent, kids feel safe. Some families use chore charts, some use allowances, and some use calendars posted on the refrigerator. The method is up to the individual family, and each family will eventually find its own, unique way of doing things. What counts is not exactly how it’s done, but that it’s actually done.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.